Charter Schools Come To Maine

Not a cure for the pox on education in Maine and in the country, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Thanks to the talents of our former editor Derek Viger, Pine Tree Politics has covered the issue of charter schools at some length.  But now, thanks to the legislature and a signature from Governor Paul LePage on Wednesday, charter schools are set to finally make their way to the Pine Tree State.  Took Maine long enough, they are now the 41st state to allow these incubators of educational experimentation within their borders.

The move fulfills a major campaign promise from LePage, and is an issue that I’ve been beating the drum on myself for quite some time.

It is also an issue that really had some pretty broad agreement among politicians – and certainly Maine voters.  LePage was obviously in favor (as were all of his Republican rivals), but so was his independent rival, Eliot Cutler, and even a number of Democrats (particularly Rosa Scarcelli and to some degree Steve Rowe) were favorable.  Hell, even aborted Green candidate Lynne Williams was down.

It seems the only substantial forces aligned against them were the MEA/MPA, and their favored candidate, Libby Mitchell.  This was interesting, especially given the interest of national Democrats like President Obama in reforming the system.  Indeed, some of the most innovative, free thinking, and radical education reformers in this country are Democrats, so it was always more than a little sad to see the same yawn inspiring defense of the status quo from Mitchell and her ilk in this latest campaign season.

Of course, given the travashamockery that was Maine’s application for Race to the Top funding under the stewardship of Senate President Mitchell and those same special interests, I think most of us are comfortable saying it is time to try to break that old status quo system and try to reform the system.

I suppose in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife is a school teacher in a public school in Alexandria, Virginia.  She got her teaching degree in Maine, taught in Maine, and then taught in Maryland as well before we finally settled in Virginia.  Since coming here to Virginia, she has openly laughed at the education that was being taught to students in Maine, compared to what is taught here.  Suffice it to say, both she and I are very glad our son will be in this system, as opposed to Maine’s.

I mention this only to highlight that I have a front row seat to the day to day experience of our education system from the perspective of a teacher – and one with multiple state experience – in states with charter schools as competition and ones without.

What I see is a horrific indictment of the public school system – everything from curriculum, to evaluation practices, to standards, to the bureaucratic nightmare teachers face, to the waste and mis-allocation of funds in schools.  It is bad.  Real bad.  We need to do things very different, and radical innovation is damn near impossible inside our current school system.  Every interest is resistant to change.

Most of us have moved beyond the lazy and inaccurate labeling that said favoring reform of public education – in, well, just about any way – meant you stood on the opposite side of the room from teachers.  Some of the most radical education reformers I have met have been teachers themselves.  Ask them what is broken about the system and you’ll likely get your ear chewed off for a few hours.

It seems education is the one issue that reasonable, sane people of all political parties can agree to a “cease-fire” about, politically.  There are disagreements, certainly, but you find reformers equally in both parties, and I think we all recognize that the one thing we all want is a better education for our kids (I have one who will be entering kindergarten next year), and none of us want to play politics with that for political gain.  To do so would mean we put political point scoring ahead of our own kids.

And we all recognize the problem, too.  I make an excellent living, but my son is going to school for the first time next year, and I am going to have to actually move just to ensure he goes to a school he can succeed in.  If I lived where I do now when he started school, he’d be in a substandard, crumbling hole of a school full of behavior problems, low achievement, and… problems all around.  So I’m forced into a position where I have to uproot and relocate to get him a good school (and I am hardly alone).  What a broken system.

To fix that system, we need to discuss and try many different things.  Maine has been woefully pathetic in reforming and innovating public education, and needs to try new things.  One of those things is charter schools.

Charter schools aren’t anything that will fix the system by itself.  Indeed, opponents of the concept frequently point to test scores that show many charter schools which fall below standards and the average performance of public schools (usually while also ignoring the many that dramatically over-perform them as well).  There is no disputing this, nor should it even be unexpected.  This is certainly not a rational argument to keep the status quo, as my son’s potential elementary school shows, the public school system routinely produces embarrassingly low performing schools already.

The power of charter schools is not their overall performance – although that is actually a selling point – but rather it is their potential for experimentation, innovation, and new thinking in education.  Charter schools have the freedom to do things differently, from how they relate to labor (teachers), to how students are taught.  These experiments littered across the country provide us an opportunity to try new things, find out what doesn’t work, and find out what does work.  Innovations in charter schools have already provided us some models that the Obama administration is trying to spread nation wide.

The scaremongering, status quo defending interests that oppose all types of education reform constantly harp about “money being taken out” of public schools in favor of this or that.  This country spends more per captia on education than any other country in the world (save the Swiss), and what has that bought us?  If you’d like to see the amount of photocopying my wife is forced to do, only to either not use or throw out immediately, you’d weep.

Money isn’t the problem, and I suggest that taking money out of the failing system and putting it into things that at worst perform as well as our current system, isn’t such a bad idea.  It is the very system that is burning trucks full of money and resisting change with every ounce of its being that is the problem.

And while we’re at it, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to attach education funding to the forehead of the child to introduce choice into the system so I don’t have to move to the next town over and cross my fingers a new bureaucrat doesn’t mess up my kid’s school in order to get my son a decent education.  But, then again, maybe that’s too much to hope for.

As for charter schools, this is a great first step.  Let’s hope they aren’t done.

UPDATE:  I probably should have mentioned this fantastic and well overdue bill as well.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.